Some years ago I was in hospital for a time and not in the least bit happy about it. One sleepless night I was walking the halls of the unit, unable to sleep, and tempted with self-pity. I thought to myself (in rebuke), “Father Arseny endured the Soviet Gulag with more hope and patience than you’re bringing to this.” Father Arseny is the figure in the book by the same name that relates the story of an amazing Russian priest who was a true saint of his generation. My inner conversation continued, “God gave Fr. Arseny the grace to endure his sufferings.” I added, “If I had the same measure of grace, I would not only be enduring this, I would be walking two feet off the floor.” My meditation ended thus: “I have been given just the amount of grace needed for this present moment. Use what you’re given.” And so I did. It was a turning point.
It is a meditation that has come back to me many times since. St. Paul’s words are fitting (particularly if they are rightly translated):
“No trial has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tried beyond your ability, but with the trial he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”(1 Cor 10:13)
It must be noted that the “endurance” we are given sometimes includes the grace of martyrdom. This verse is not a promise of “no trials.” Indeed, everything revealed to us in the faith assures us that there will be trials – for all.
Of course, this verse has given rise to the popular saying, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” This is not only a distortion of what is actually said, it is a complete reversal. “What I can handle,” in the popular trope, easily becomes the measure of what God can give. It serves as yet another reason (or excuse) for not believing in God. Bad theology generally ends in atheism for the simple reason that the God of bad theology is not the true and living God. I don’t believe in that God either.
Consider this verse carefully. I have used the word “trial” to translate the Greek, peirasmos, in that it captures the meaning much better than the English word “temptation.” Indeed, it is the same word as is used in the Lord’s Prayer (“lead us not into temptation”) whose meaning would be more accurately rendered as, “lead us not into triall”). St. Paul’s “escape,” clearly doesn’t carry the meaning of “no longer suffering,” for he explains the meaning as “being able to endure it.” If I escape, in the sense of “run away,” then there would no longer be anything to endure.
“The way of escape,” it seems to me is a loaded expression that suggests more than the original text. That word is “ekbasis,” literally, a “going out,” or an “exit.” Where do we go? That, for me, is probably the greatest question. I think of the great Psalm of protection (91):
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you
from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday…
Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place—
the Most High, who is my refuge—
no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
no plague come near your tent.
(Psalm 91:1-6; 9–10)
Here the “escape” is clear: the “Most High is my refuge.” Christ Himself is the “Door,” and the place of safety. That is the secure place where no plague or evil can enter.
Whatever the various trials may be in our lives, there is the grace of Christ Himself. I cannot fathom the experience of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, who, in his time of trial, saw Christ standing at the right hand of God. It was a grace given him that allowed him to endure his stoning. Other martyrs have endured worse. Ultimately, our “escape” is defined by the grace given us rather than our own imagination.
Much of the secularization of the gospel that has taken place in modern times has eliminated the interior life. It is only in such a context that notions of the “prosperity gospel” could find such a willing audience. That Christ died on the Cross to bring about material wealth in human lives, or to remove suffering, is among the most perverted notions ever to have used the name of Jesus.
Orthodox tradition, through long centuries, has pointed to figures of poverty and self-denial as examples of holiness. The glories of Byzantium or Holy Russia are not found in their rulers, much less their wealthy classes. Like the holy Apostles, those that are holy are often those who are “like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things” (1Cor. 4:13). At the same time, this “scum” and “refuse” have hidden within them all the treasures of the Kingdom of God.
It is not the case that we are generally called to abandon everything, though it is a legitimate calling and is constantly fulfilled in the lives of holy monastics. But we should neither assume that the pleasant life of our American dream is normative for believers. It might even be harmful.
I do wonder if this chaotic year of turmoil will, in time, come to be seen as a great blessing sent to us by God. I can imagine stranger things. I would never want to make light of human suffering. But the absence of suffering is not the measure of a good or blessed life. I cannot think of a single saint whom we honor whose life had such a contour.
How we think about suffering, both our own and that of others, is probably more indicative of the nature of our spiritual life than we realize. Modernity’s take on suffering is that it is evil and that it is our responsibility to ameliorate it and, as much as possible, remove it. Its story of human history is told in terms of a progressive drive to end suffering as well as the myth of its own success. In short, it is not a narrative that has any place for the Cross (except as an example of injustice).
Orthodox Christianity rightly points towards the commandments of Christ to care for the needy, to forgive our enemies, and to live a life of self-offering. But its vision of a suffering-free world belongs only to the age to come. Modernity is a tale that could only be told and believed by those with inordinate material means. It is not a story that would be created by the poor. Christ’s statement that the “poor you have with you always” is not a comment on the evils of our economic systems. It is a frank revelation of the nature of life in this world that will not change.
Over the years, I have come to believe that only those who understand and rightly live in the midst of their own suffering have the ability to serve the poor without doing them harm. If you cannot, in the end, be of any assistance in teaching someone to endure the burden of their own suffering, then you will be of little use in the reality of the suffering world. St. Maximos taught: “whoever has understood the mystery of the Cross has understood the essential content of all things.”
Suffering, like the Cross itself, is only understood from the inside. It contains the greatest of mysteries. Christ became poor; He became naked, imprisoned, sick, and hungry. He continues in that union even into this present moment. I am not entirely certain that we can find Him elsewhere (unless we discover that every “elsewhere” is itself poor, naked, imprisoned, sick and hungry.)
Christ is in our midst!
After so many years of hearing the ” it’s going to be ok, just remember God never gives you more than you can endure “, seeing the actual message is startling. Thank you, as always.
Wonderful and so timely! And I am convinced that indeed “every elsewhere” is poor, sick, and hungry…those without Christ, with little to no faith, no matter how materially rich or whatever they be need our prayers, compassion, and love.
Thank you, Fr. Stephen. I needed this today. We just found out my wife’s lymphoma is back for the third time. We’ve often said that one cannot live to be our age (both in our 70’s) without suffering. But how we suffer is the key; and to whom we run…I find that I’m just like a small chick, running constantly to be under the shelter of God’s pinions! I think it was your father-in-law who said to others as his life was toward its end…”watch how I die.” Much like our godly priest of blessed memory who was wanting to confess people up to the last week of his life! Yet his last 3 days were spent in terrible pain with his brain tumor.
Well, we know that Christ only allows things into our life that ultimately are for our salvation. Glory to God (and the shelter of His wings) for all things!
“And further, beloved brethren, what is it, what a great thing is
it, how pertinent, how necessary, that pestilence and plague which
seems horrible and deadly, searches out the righteousness of each one,
and examines the minds of the human race, to see whether they who are
in health tend the sick; whether relations affectionately love their
kindred; whether masters pity their languishing servants; whether
physicians do not forsake the beseeching patients; whether the fierce
suppress their violence; whether the rapacious can quench the ever
insatiable ardour of their raging avarice even by the fear of death;
whether the haughty bend their neck; whether the wicked soften their
boldness; whether, when their dear ones perish, the rich, even then
bestow anything, and give, when they are to die without heirs.
Even although this mortality conferred nothing else, it has done this
benefit to Christians and to God’s servants, that we begin gladly to
desire martyrdom as we learn not to fear death.
These are trainings for us, not deaths: they give the mind the glory of
fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown.”
-St. Cyprian of Carthage, ~AD250
St. Cyprian is such a gentle soul… 🙂
Thank you so much for this beautiful offering on suffering in the Christian life.
What of the phrase that appears in some prayers: “All is sent by you” That can easily imply that God is sending the trial personally to me. Of course, it is a package that includes His grace but still…..
Michael Bauman – it is my understanding that EVERYTHING comes either by God’s will or God’s permission for our salvation. I read this over and over in the lives of the saints. A wonderful book that really helped me to understand this truth is The Sunflower by Saint John of Tobolsk (forefather of Saint John of San Francisco). It is by far one of the best Orthodox books I have ever read and one that I will go back to regularly.
I’ve been falling into self-pity lately, so thank you, Father, for your words.
Dean, you and your wife shall be in my prayers.
Esmee, I’ve added “The Sunflower” to my reading list; thank you for mentioning it.
I am saddened to hear about this relapse… my best wishes for Freda and you, and of course you both are in my prayers. May God give you strength and peace!
I’m having trouble understanding whether you’re saying suffering is good in itself, or as a necessary instrument to make you into someone you couldn’t otherwise be.
Is suffering like a raft God builds to float you across the river into the Kingdom, then discarded?
Or if Christlikeness is itself suffering, why wipe any tears away? Let’s live in a Kingdom of tears to be always like Him.
Dean God is with you both. May you both be with God.
Scott, that is the question. I discovered 16 tears ago when I my late wife died that He will get me through anything and create joy in the process. But that is only halfthe question.
TJS, Steve and Michael,
Thank you brothers.
Your prayers for us both are very much appreciated.
I started reading The Sunflower and I’m glad you found it helpful. Maybe someday I’ll find it helpful as well. However, with the author’s extensive use of Saint Augustine (whom also I hope one day to find helpful) and my own western baggage, it’s difficult for me to hear anything other than a juridical take on salvation: you sinned therefore God gave you a sickness as punishment. This just adds to my suspicion that God is always out to “get” me for something. I’m sure the book is more nuanced than that but, like I said, my own baggage makes it hard for me to hear.
Suffering is certainly unavoidable, though I would never call it good in itself. It is used for our good in an on-going act of the love of God who unites Himself to our suffering. Nonetheless, we do not know an uncrucified Jesus. In some manner, even though it is beyond tears and sorrow, the Kingdom of God is still cruciform in its shape. I think it is the nature of self-emptying love. It is described as a mystery – and I suspect it can only be understood or rightly described (in some measure) from the inside.
May God hold you and your wife close.
It seems to me you are thinking of suffering as something of a “stepping stone” in life, something in which we take part and then leave behind, at lease in the way you are asking your questions. It may be helpful to think of it as simply a part of life that is allowed for our salvation.
Suffering is something we take part in and it can bring us closer to God, if we bear it rightly. It is a difficulty, a trial, as Father points out, that God allows. We should not overemphasize nor underemphasize it, just bear it with the Grace given us.
Taking suffering for granted as part of life in this world makes sense to me. And trusting that God is using it for my good because He is good and only wills good is for me the only hopeful way to speak of suffering. When theologians try to peer behind the good promises of God in order to glimpse some secret plan–that’s when I get lost. For instance, it’s not helpful to me to hear that suffering is used as the punishment and destruction for God’s enemies but as the chastisement of his friends (which is how The Sunflower talks about suffering). If God is good and He is providential, then all He sends or allows must be for the good of all.
Someone please correct me if I’m missing the mark here.
William – I do not have your baggage. I’m sorry you have found the book less than helpful. The way I interpret it, based on all my other reading of Orthodox saints, is that what comes to us is a medicine for salvation (healing) of our soul, not a punishment for our sins. And certainly, medicine is often an unpleasant and necessary “evil” on the path to wellness. My God guide you to reading that is more appropriate to your needs.
Love in Christ,
It’s very difficult to overcome the dark baggage of the juridical, perpetual “angry” God whose “justice” necessitates some kind of retribution. The more I grow the more I am convinced this is a pagan concept that infiltrated Christendom (and affects many cradle Orthodox especially in Russia due to the historical influence of Roman Catholicism there). Indeed this god is actually the devil.
Having been raised and inundated with such a false and destructive view of God, it takes time to be able to hear words like “punish” and “chastise” in the spirit of love with which they are written and even to receive these things when God gives them / allows them into our lives. Thankfully God knows us better than we ourselves and loves us more than we ever could ourselves too! The smallest of faith in a struggling Christian He counts as strong and mighty.
Indeed, as I noted in the article – bad theology makes for a bad outcome. Honesty forces me to note that within the tradition there are those writers who tend towards a sort of harshness – and even employ juridical imagery. It’s the sort of thing that reminds me of Fr. Georges Florovsky’s use of the phrase “neo-patristic synthesis.” And, for me, the accent is on the “synthesis.” The harshness or juridical turn of pesonality in one writer need not be taken to out-weigh the generosity and discerning mercy of another. We stand within the Tradition ourselves and, I think, given that we have been the inheritors of an overly-juridical culture and numerous distortions of God Himself (as by Calvin and his followers), that we are all a bit gun-shy.
I’ve seen priests handle a parish and people in a fairly juridical manner – without predictable results. My own take on this is to see that it is often personality-driven. Everybody’s got their wounds – myself included. And you have to work (as a priest) not to make your wounds the lens through which you see God or the world. It’s important not to confuse God with our neurosis.
When Sigmund Freud dismissed God as nothing more than the “Super-Ego” a projection of a parental image onto the universe – I think he was making an all-to-often correct observation. I do not believe in that God – though it is an image that has dogged our consciousness for a very long time.
My way in this is to remind myself that I only know God as He has made Himself known to us in Christ Jesus. It saves us from so much heartache.
May He ever protect us!
“God created man in His image. Man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.”
Father there are so many of your writings I have really loved. But this one is like a “greatest hits” album, so many things combined 🙂
Dean, peace. I’m praying for you and your wife
My prayers also for your wife, dear brother in Christ, Dean.
Christ is in our midst!
Indeed He is!
Thank you Father, for the words. Prayers for you Dean, and your wife.
Dee, Byron, Janine,
Wonderful bond of love felt through your words and prayers.
“How good and pleasant it is when brothers (and sisters) dwell in unity. It is like precious oil upon the head…It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion.”
Thank you for your edifying and inspirational articles, Fr. Stephen. Many times I find myself reading just want I needed to read on a given day. The concept of “grace enough” really speaks to me. So often, when struggling, I think “Where is my faith?” and “Why can’t I be more like the saints?” I certainly read about them and read spiritual writings, pray, and live the life of the Church. Your words, “I have been given just the amount of grace needed for this present moment. Use what you’re given,” are so helpful. God really does give just the right amount of grace we need at any given time. I want to growin my trust in Him and not fret so much when I am troubled. Please pray for me, Maria, and my family. Thank you, Father. May God continue to bless your ministry and grant you many years!
Father, I sincerely appreciate that the picture you selected showing the Church, that is, each of us and the saints, helping each other to support each other as we carry our respective crosses. In fact, what we are doing is indeed sharing in the one and the same cross of Christ. This sharing of the cross is, in fact, what your ministry is for us. And I thank you for this.
The Lord says that His burden is light. (Matthew 11:30) And the lightness does seem to be just that with the blooming of love in one’s heart for God.
Thankyou Father for this article, it really brought certain threads of my own thought together as well as clearly answering questions I have stewed over. I am grateful for your explication of 1 Cor 10:13 which I suppose might be a generally misunderstood verse.
That Christ died on the Cross to bring about material wealth in human lives, or to remove suffering is something I believe to also have infiltrated the preaching at the Calvinist church I was apart of. Also one damaging message I heard about suffering was that we should look at Christ suffering and realise that our suffering is minuscule in comparison hence encouraging us to minimise our own suffering. Orthodoxy greatly comforts me with God’s message that He can use our suffering to unite us with Christ. Under a Calvinistic paradigm I often experienced my suffering as meaningless or merely a necessary evil that I must endure until I reach the end of my life. And yes without a meaningful spirituality the interior life is neglected. I am already a very heady person, (Enneagram type 5) so the overly intellectual or rational orientation of protestant church I was a part of was a barrier to my spiritual growth.
I appreciate that you say this: “Bad theology generally ends in atheism for the simple reason that the God of bad theology is not the true and living God.” While it might be offensive to postmodern ears, it truly is validating for someone like me who struggled with bad theology and greatly desires truth. I think Stockholm syndrome is also present in a religious context. Calvinists like to talk about hard truths that the natural man will want to rebel against, but truly this is just an ad-hoc justification for their inhumane doctrines. Their corrupted soteriology leads to aberrations in their anthropology.
“But we should neither assume that the pleasant life of our American dream is normative for believers.” I think many have unknowingly been shaped by the materialistic presuppositions of Modernity. With the emphasis on material blessings we have forgotten the importance of relational blessings. Just think of the fracturing of families and generations and the epidemic of loneliness among both young and old. Many in non-Western cultures may live in near-poverty but they experience a joy in relationships and indeed the simple things of life, namely the fulfilment of our needs instead of the pursuit of deceptive passions. America was built on a false premise of their misconstrued pursuit of happiness.
I wrote my own rambling thoughts above mainly for my own benefit (I don’t mean in a selfish way though), but thought I would share in case it is useful for anyone else.
Your personal witness to all of this is of great value. May God give you grace as you heal and grow!
Thankyou for your kind words Father!
Dear Fr. Freeman,
I can’t imagine the kind of spiritual maturity it must take to live in the Present Moment. I am utterly unable to do it for more than a few minutes or seconds even after several years of trying. (I discovered de Caussade and Brother Lawrence in around 2007 and have been trying to implement them in my life so far, but I feel like I’m making no progress. So perhaps you are right about there being no such thing as moral progress, ha ha.)
But such a life is quite depressing. I mean, if I were a believer in “progress,” then at least I have a rough idea of what I can expect to happen in the future if I follow certain steps.
But with this path, I “sit with my shame” and then… what? What can I expect to happen? You say I will meet Christ in the depths of my shame, and at some level I do understand that, and perhaps I even experience it fleetingly, but I cannot hold that understanding for more than a few moments. The cares of this world and my shame at my incompetence at handling them come back crashing into my consciousness to mock me.
I cannot stop myself looking into the future, and a lifetime of living in the present moment seems like a dreary succession of humiliating groping about in the dark for something valuable, and I am not even sure what this valuable thing that I am searching for looks like.
I also cannot stop myself looking back into the past and wondering how the shame of the past can ever be healed, even by God. What about the wrong choices, the missed opportunities, the sins, the clock that can’t be turned back, the hasty words which cannot be taken back, the impulsive actions, the poor judgement, the accusations of others?
Yes, Christ bore our shame, but Christ never sinned, and so whatever shame he bore, He could never have had the conviction “Yes, I deserve this because I am a failure. I am incompetent. Even if one part of my mind denies the accusations of those who mock me, another part of my mind knows that I have a lot of stupid actions to my credit, and so I cannot defend myself. Deep down I know I am really as pathetic as these people say I am, though maybe not in the way they think, but even that I am not sure of. Perhaps I really am pathetic in the way they think. Who can tell? Perhaps, at the final judgement, God will tell me that I was wrong and everyone who shamed me was right about me!” No, there’s no way Christ could have experienced that, was there? So how can I be consoled by thinking that Christ is here with me in the depths of shame?
In your more recent post, you say Adam looked at Christ in the face when Christ descended into Hades and freed the souls there, but I cannot imagine how that would have been. Even though Christ led Adam and Eve out of Hades, how would the shame leave them? The past cannot be changed. For all eternity they would be “the First Parents who messed up and caused the Fall” (or the failure to rise to Deification, in the terminology that some Orthodox prefer). How does one ever escape from the weight of shame that heavy? How can Adam have possibly looked at Christ in the face without shriveling up in shame? I would really really like to understand but all I have right now is an occasional fitful glimmer that is soon overpowered by the gloom of my self-love which I cannot get rid of.
Please write more on this subject, Fr. Freeman. Your writings are a rare source of light, and I pray that you are able to complete your next book soon. (I purchased your book “Everywhere Present” years ago.)
A few thoughts from my own struggle…you’re right, the past is the past, and what is done cannot be undone strictly speaking. However it can and will be transfigured, transformed by the life of Christ at work in you and all who believe. Our true selves are mysteries unfolding with time, hidden with Christ in God…sometimes He will allow us to catch a glimpse of our true, inner beauty and perfection. The past is only correctly interpreted eschatologically, ie. in view of our ultimate healing/salvation/transfiguration. And all the prior, evil things in us shall be forgotten, swallowed up by Divine Life. This is our confidence in Christ.
I’ve often thought the same as you: “How can Jesus Christ fully relate to my sense of shame and failure (which I’ve found is typically disproportionate anyways)?” And the truth is that He has and does identify with us in every way…our pain is His pain and our joy is also His. Anything less fails to fully acknowledge the Incarnation – God and Man fully united though distinct.
We often underestimate the guile of the adversaries who do audaciously accuse us…when in fact God so infinite in mercy loves us completely and unconditionally just as we are, and promises to not leave us in our state of self-focused gloom but rather to make us partakers of His Divine nature and joy. Perseverance is the key.
NSP, you hit the nail on the head: the past can’t be changed. No sin can be undone.
Maybe the best outcome is the past reframed.
Good question, good reflection. I’ll make an attempt at being helpful.
Strictly speaking, I think “moral progress” is sort of the wrong question to ever ask of ourselves. My experience over the years is that, although we might not make certain major mistakes over and over, we generally wrestle with the same small things – anger, judging, envy, greed, etc. The acquisition of virtue, which is more common in Orthodox thought, describes the formation (or reformation) of character over time. A thief, for example, might slowly acquire the virtues required to resist stealing – become a better man. But those virtues will still have to confront the world and its temptations. Is he a better man? Again, I think it’s the wrong question.
Your comments viz. shame, Adam and Eve, etc. are closer to the point. Our acquisition of character requires a deeper work in which our shame is confronted. We do not make the shame go away – but when we encounter Christ in our shame – for He awaits us there – the shame can be transformed. Rather than being something that separates us from Christ and leaves us feeling alienated from our very selves, it becomes a place of union with Christ. This happens in bearing a little shame at a time. It often needs the presence of another person (perhaps a priest) to help us see the shame, bear it, and see Christ within it, uniting ourselves to Him in that event.
We look at pictures, icons, etc., of the crucified Christ all the time. That is the great moment of shame for the human race. It is a display of the worst thing we have ever done – and contains within it the sum total of all the evil human beings have ever done. And yet, we look at it with open face and even find it to be a picture of devotion and love. That is a transformation of shame – a terrible thing becomes bearable and a place of union with Christ. Every shame we bear is the Cross.
NSP, thank you for your candid comment. It appears to me that you might be over-spiritualising your struggle; maybe there are underlying emotional issues which could be resolved more pragmatically (e.g with modern psychology). Even if that is the case I recommend reading and reflecting on 2 Corinthians 7:9-11. Here it is, Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. 10 For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. 11 For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter.
Fr. Freeman would you agree that it is of primary value for our shame to be transformed into humility and gratitude/joy? Those virtues seem to me to most be able to come from the transformation of shame and are also most desirable.
Reminds me of Amazing Grace. The song in part shows the transformation of shame into joy and humility. Consider the opening lines:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I know a man, I have known him for 45 years a man of such love for God that you he seems to take on the sufferings of others in his body. It manifests as a disease from which he suffers but God has given him a measure of grace that has helped transform and transfigure others, me among them. I think this is what a saint might be like. I know him well enough that I have seen him angry and dejected and in deep doubt but God has always been there with him and in such a way that even those things are turned to the benefit of others. I have always come away from him having learned joy a little bit more humility and repentance. He suffers greatly but the equanimity he has always shown remains. It is not easily won and the measure of grace given to him is such that it not only sustains him but over flows to bless many around him.
I think that such a gift is rare but maybe I am mistaken to think that any gift of God’s grace is only for me.
Of course if I said who I am talking about he would be mortified.
Thank you for responding. Sorry to be a bother, but I have some questions arising from reading your very kind response.
0. In your article “What St. Seraphim Meant” you mention that St. Seraphim used the hard-nosed business-sense he learnt from his Dad to create analogies describing the spiritual life. So I assume you are not totally averse to some kind of spiritual “stock-taking,” or a regular practice of an examination of one’s conscience. So my query is, if “Am I a better man?” is the wrong question to be asking, then what is the right question to be used in one’s regular self-examination? Is there one at all?
1. Do you mean to say that “confronting one’s shame” is the very essence of “acquisition of virtue” and “character development?” Is the acquisition of virtue and character you speak of synonymous with the Theosis you have written about in many places or do you see it as one level lower than that?
2. Also, it is not clear to me that there is a sharp dividing line between behavioural change and character. Doesn’t Aristotle’s say that virtues are formed in man by repeatedly doing the right actions?
From my understanding of many of the popular books on habit building, isn’t it true that due to neuroplasticity, repeated behaviour causes actual changes in the wiring of our brains? And given that you have frequently mentioned in your writings that a human being is not to be thought of as a “ghost in a machine,” doesn’t it mean that consistently repeated behavioural change compounding over time amounts to a change in one’s actual character and not just external behaviour? Therefore is such a sharp distinction between “just behavioural change” and “acquiring virtue” really helpful when we are discussing Christians who do their best to be united to Christ and not anti-theists or Pelagians?
3. What of those of us who don’t have the presence of another person to help us bear the shame? (I’m Catholic and go to confession often, but I can’t really think of a priest in my acquaintance who has this approach.) Is there any way we can stumble along, at least until we find someone to help us?
It’s interesting you mention the crucifix. I find myself unable to gaze for long upon some baroque style crucifixes because of a sense of uneasiness I cannot place. I can’t recall having had that problem with other more serene crucifixes or Orthodox crucifixes or icons of the crucifixion, though. I watched the film “The Passion of the Christ” when it came out in 2004, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to re-watch it. Similarly, I could never bring myself to watch Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” because I knew from reviews that it showed Christ unclothed in the crucifixion scene.
James Isaac & ScottTX,
C.S. Lewis does mention somewhere in Mere Christianity, if I remember right, that the “good infection” spreads out into the past and future in time, and also that just as when we have reached a stable place in life, we can look back on our struggles with happiness, so also when we are truly made holy even our past life of failures will appear in its true light.
And the words “O happy fault” appear in the Catholic Easter Vigil.
But… all these seem so nebulous and disconnected from everyday reality, so they don’t really help in warding off discouragement.
Thanks for your reply. I have thought so too. I do have high levels of anxiety (even so, I cannot for the life of me imagine how anything other than worry can be an appropriate response to much of the situations of life. It’s a mystery to me how many people around me can be so easygoing about life. Can’t they see that chaos and ruin are always lurking beneath the surface and around the corner? 🙂 )
I have tried CBT (including Fr. Alexis Trader’s book), and ACT. They have helped me a bit. It’s like being able to walk with a crutch after being totally unable to walk. But they don’t heal the shame fully. And the spiritual questions still remain, don’t they? What are God’s intentions in allowing human existence to be such as it is?
I would surely love to hear as much as possible about this man (with all due respect to his privacy). What comforts me in your description is that you acknowledge his vulnerability to anger and despondency like the rest of us, and he is not some unreachable perfect figure to be admired but with no access point to be emulated.
NSP, I’ll see what I can do.
0. I avoid “stock-taking” simply because it too often leads to thinking about the wrong things. That said, having some sense that something is improving, or becoming less of a problem, is probably helpful in some situations. I say this after sleeping on your question. Despair is a terrible thing. When I was in college I was hospitalized for a week with a clinical depression. It was terrible. Everything inside seemed completely dark. But, on the morning of my last day in the hospital, I was praying (what little I could pray), and I saw a point of light – just a point – within. I “heard” a voice (like an intuition) that repeated the verse from Joel: “I will restore what the canker worm hath eaten away.” I had a moment of joy that came with it. Later that day, I checked out of the hospital on the force of that promise. I should note that my then-fiancee-later-my-wife was deeply concerned that the hospital was the wrong place for me and she had been fasting (no food at all) for several days for me. There followed a year or two of intermittent hell – but the promise remained. The flat statement of “no moral improvement” or similar things – is probably wrong and needs to be modified. Some things change.
1. The question that is useful (when thinking of confession) is (for me): “What have I done?” I try to simply state what I have done – as simply as possible without qualifiers – allowing whatever there is about to be seen. Also: “What have I done with Christ?” This is important. What is unhelpful is too much concern for the self (how am I doing?). I never really know how I’m doing. I might think I’m doing great, but not be, and vice versa. It is to put myself in the presence of Christ so that He may judge me that is helpful. Thus – what have I done with Christ – have I avoided Him? have I overlooked Him? etc.
2. Perhaps there is not a sharp dividing line between behavioral change and character – except that character has a stable aspect. “Repeatedly doing right actions” isn’t exactly the same thing as Aristotle’s “practices.” But I won’t quibble about it. As a matter of humility (an acquired virtue) this concern for how I’m doing can be less than helpful. Forgetting of the self, because it’s turned toward Christ is better.
Writing about these things is governed largely by audience. In a self-absorbed, over-psychologized culture, things like moral improvement, etc. can easily have a way of distorting the gospel and the life-well-lived. I mention Fr. Hopko’s 55 maxims from time to time. They are clear, simple, and directed towards the things that matter.
Writing as one neurotic to another – sometimes the burden and Cross of our neurosis (whatever it may be) can be a tool in the hand of God for our salvation – even though that work might be quite hidden from our own consciousness.
3. Sometimes a good therapist (if you can find one) can be of great use, inasmuch as they are a safe place to explore issues of shame. Some issues of shame (depending on their nature) are also helped in groups (such as recovery-based groups when appropriate). Sometimes, there’s not a good answer for this question – so, as always, you pray for an answer and do your best.
NSP, I cannot say much more but he is not some perfect man. He has had many struggles and has the normal collection of faults. He lives God but that did not, does not make him perfect and he has almost turned aside from God a number of times. Yet, he has not. He laughs a lot even in pain and his laugh is a hearty laugh that never fails to lift my spirits. He is married and has a son, but I have never met his son. He has not met mine. His wife is pretty amazing too. There was a break in our acquaintelance of about 20 years. But at significant times in my life God brought us together and it has always been a blessing to me.
He is a man of God and God has made him fruitful. I fully expect the fruit of his labors to be a great blessing to the Church. Even greater than my own. At some point you will know who he is I expect. He is not hidden now.
Thank you for being so candid about your struggles – it takes a good deal of courage and humility to air such honesty in a public forum like this. I also have struggled with severe, incapacitating anxiety and depression – in fact I spent from April of last year until about April of this in a very grave state wherein I could not work and was unable really even to see other people (such was my sense of toxic – and largely false – shame). I am far from perfected, but I write as one who read things such as you mention from CS Lewis and Orthodox writers, who struggled with a similar sense of disconnection from the truth they related, and who has come into a place where such things as they and I wrote do FEEL true (beyond simply making some intellectual sense).
Thank you for sleeping on my question and responding in detail. It’s very gracious of you to acknowledge the possibility of elasticity in the central themes you write about. It gives me some level of hope. It would be fantastic if you could explore this further in future articles.
(I am curious: has there been no prominent Orthodox saint who has advocated any structured forms of self-examination like St. Ingatius of Loyola did? Is that sort of attitude completely antithetical to the Orthodox mindset? Though it can be done in a moralistic sort of way, there are also those who teach it in a more refined heartful way – such as this example – which are probably closer to the approach you advocate.)
Fr. Aidan Kimel in one of your articles quotes Yannaras as teaching that acknowledgement of moral failure is the starting point of true repentance. Similarly what I understand you to be saying is that bearing one’s shame is the starting point of true character development. Have I got that right?
Thank you for sharing your personal struggles. You wife sound like an exceptionally kind-hearted and gracious lady. Also, I am very impressed by the maturity of your ecclesiastical superiors in the Anglican Communion and the OCA for nurturing your vocation even after knowing your history with depression and anxiety.
Inexplicably, what was most consoling in your response was when you acknowledgement of me as your fellow neurotic.:) Thank you very much for your time!
Thank you for the elaboration. I look forward to learning about this man at the appropriate time.
Thanks for sharing your struggles too. Glad that you’ve managed to endure through your year of hell and make it to less tempestous times. Any tips on hanging on will be gratefully appreciated by one going through similar times.
What I have found most helpful in hanging on to hope / progressing out of hell is to be as honest as one can with one’s true feelings and bring them before the Lord. I mean if you feel like screaming and yelling at God, He is “big” enough and so full of mercy He can handle it. (My poor neighbours at my previous apartment…)
Part of “bearing a little shame” is, I have found, being able to express painful, “negative” emotions to Him (whether about oneself, others, or even His plan which sometimes SEEMS like too much for us to handle) and trust that He is ok with it (and so we can be too).
Of course the goal isn’t to stay angry or sad or what have you…just in my experience I have found I had been repressing a whole lot of anger, frustration, and grief/sadness. We need to give ourselves permission to express what we really feel, knowing that God knows us and what we are *really* feeling better than we ourselves, and loves us more than we could ever fully comprehend.
As I’m working(!) my way through the writing of this book related to shame, it has become clear to me that no one would, in the long run, dare to do the harder parts of it if there were no promise of good beneath it all. If, for example, we were “totally depraved,” who in his right mind would want to explore his depravity? But if, we are, at the core, in the image and likeness of Christ, if the shame (etc.) is a distortion that keeps us from seeing the brightness of God in the face of Christ, then it is worth everything – every hardship, etc. Even Christ, we are told, went to the Cross for the joy that was set before Him.
This is not “progress” in the sense that “I am getting better.” That would be too small of a goal, and, frankly, we’d all settle for “good enough” at some point. It’s the “excellency of knowing Christ” that St. Paul mentions that makes it worthwhile. And, that “when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”
So, as I’m writing, it’s something I’m bearing in mind – how to write and describe that adequately.
I put the emphasis next to “working” btw, because it’s being a very difficult bit of writing – way more soul work than other topics. So – prayers.
Dear Father you have our prayers!
Your ministry here sincerely helps us regardless of the progress in your writing.
I’m ever grateful!
“Over the years, I have come to believe that only those who understand and rightly live in the midst of their own suffering have the ability to serve the poor without doing them harm.”
Lately I have come to fully realize that only those who’ve suffered/ing can truly understand & help those who are suffering.
“I have come to realise that most people only have the capacity to understand suffering to the level they have personally experienced. And they lack the empathy and willingness to imagine suffering greater than their own,” is a memorable quote that speaks to what Senait said.
How amazing it is that our Lord can truly empathize with us – not that we have a hard time intellectually apprehending that God is capable of “imagining suffering greater than our own”…but that He actually KNOWS our pain, our frustrations, our sorrows, and yes – our exceeding joy in communion with Him, the source and fountain of all goodness. We who are being conformed/transformed into His likeness through fellowship in His sufferings shall surely share in His everlasting glory!
It’s important to note that God not only “knows” our suffering, He suffers our suffering, fully participating in it. This, I think, is key.
Yes, indeed! I was thinking of knowing “in the Biblical sense”, as Adam knew Eve. Such – and greater still undoubtedly – is our Creator’s communion and total oneness with us in all things! (Good for you to clarify since sadly knowledge is still seen primarily as intellectual in our trying times.)
I thought you probably meant it that way – but wanted to add that emphasis.
When I read here your point that Christ Himself is our refuge, I think I experienced a glimmer of light regarding a point which has troubled me greatly for a long time.
It has to do with the damage done by one’s sins and mistakes. I can’t go back in time and correct them, and the effects of my sins and mistakes in the past have set in motion compounding ripples of damaging effects, which I am able to see in my life and around me even in the present, and I can be sure that these effects will only worsen with time. (Because on account of our connectedness, which you have described in one of your articles every one of my sins must necessarily affect the whole universe, and “each man is guilty of the sins of the whole world.” )
What then does it mean to experience redemption? What good is my repentance if the damage of my past sins (and continuing sins) are always going to radiate outwards in time with no hope of being arrested or reversed?
Try as I might, I am unable to examine the effect of our redemption on the past. I seem to remember that CS Lewis touched upon this somewhat in Mere Christianity where he speculates (if I remember right) that just as our feelings of happiness or sadness in the present can colour our recollections of the past, perhaps the effects of our repentance will ripple out into the past and somehow repair the damage. But of course, he stops there and does not theorise on the mechanics of this. I think the closest he came to exploring this idea in depth must have been in Till We Have Faces. So when you say, “Ultimately, our “escape” is defined by the grace given us rather than our own imagination,” it gives me something to meditate upon.
So far this is the understanding that I have come to:
1. Christ will repair the damage caused by my sins (“restore what the locust has eaten”), by it will be done through my co-operation by repentance more than self-improvement mindset.
2. But it is beyond human capacity to imagine how this might be accomplished. So trying to do so is a waste of time and energy.
3. My work is to fix my hope in Christ and focus on never breaking contact with the feel and taste of “the wood of the Cross” (as you put it in one of your articles ) in the present moment in the course of my daily life.
Have I got this right?
Yes. I think you have it right. On “fixing the past.” Think of Christ’s resurrection. His dead body in the tomb is the result of our sin (and His voluntary self-offering). Sin=death. And it is precisely that dead body that is raised from the dead. History is overcome and undone. That is the very nature of the resurrection – it is not simply a future remedy – but is also the remedy of all history.